Rochester and the women’s suffrage movement

It is right in 2018, a century after some women gained the vote, to recognise the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett however their success could not have been achieved without the support of thousands of women in towns and cities up and down the country. So in this blog I wish record something of the contribution made and experiences of women in Rochester who supported the calls for women to have the vote. However as will be seen they may well have been less driven by wanting the vote out of principle but more by it being the means by which they could lives of women and infants.

It was not just women who campaigned for women to get the vote – there was a men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement. This movement was particularly keen to force Cabinet Ministers, who were ignoring the will of the House of Commons, to hear the Suffragist arguments. As many parliamentarians were unwilling to hear the arguments many women took to ‘disrupting’ political meetings with questions and challenges that the speaking politician did not wish to address.

Campaigning in Rochester

In Rochester the Liberal Party secured a pledge from women not to interrupt their public meetings with their campaigning. However men were not willing to give such an undertaking so were therefore not permitted to buy tickets to the meetings. That however did not prevent them protesting by climbing on to the roofs of halls in which meeting were being held in order to gain attention for their campaign. However there are reports of suffragists being ejected from political meetings in Medway – presumably not those of the Liberal Party – as a consequence of their protest.

The women of Rochester were firmly in the camp of the non-violent suffragist movement. One of the early campaigners in Rochester was Vera Conway-Gordon. She moved to Rochester with her family in 1890 when she was 16 years old. Her family rented Longley House in Boley Hill and Vera attended Rochester Girl’s Grammar until she was 18.

In 1912, aged 38, Vera started the local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who called themselves ‘Suffragists’. The group stressed they were non-militant to set them apart from the more militant ‘suffragettes’. Vera organised many public meetings and protest marches and held groups meetings in the gardens of Satis House.

Vera would have undoubtedly been well supported by Mrs Packman, president of the Rochester Women’s Liberal Association and the wife of a local doctor. During WW1 it appears that Lady Darnley also took an active role in attending and chairing women’s meetings in Rochester.

Although the movement stressed it was not anti-men it seems the male cartoonists tried to portray it otherwise. In the Chatham Observer (14/9/12) a cartoon was published under the heading of “The spread of the sex wars”. In the cartoon the women are told they could bring their husbands to a mother’s meeting – but they wanted to enjoy themselves!

Although the prime movement in Rochester and indeed Medway would have been ‘suffragist’ that is not to say there wasn’t support for the direct action advocated by the suffragettes.

In October 1912 there appears to have been two meetings in Rochester that were addressed by a Pankhurst. Both meetings were arranged by Miss Evelyn (Eve) Billing (157 Maidstone Road) who was the organiser of the West and North Kent branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It appears that she may have been arrested twice in 1913 but not it would seem for taking ‘direct action’ in Kent.

The first of the two meetings was attended by Sylvia Pankhurst who addressed a large crowd at an open air meeting held in Northgate on the subject of women’s suffrage. It was reported that the meeting was mostly orderly although there was some heckling when Sylvia spoke. As Miss Pankhurst’s left it was reported that a few crackers were thrown at her van as by some boys who were quickly brought under control.

In the introductory address to this meeting Evelyn Billing pointed out that in countries where women had the vote infant mortality, and sickness and disease amongst parents was less. (This emphasis may explain the future shape of the women’s movement in Rochester.)

The second meeting was addressed by Mrs Pankhurst who was described as the “leader of the militant suffragists” The meeting New Corn Exchange was described as very large and enthusiastic. Doors opened 7:30 and the meeting commenced at 8pm. The admission charges were 3d, 6d and 1s. What was obtained for the higher price was not explained in the advertisement for the meeting. Mrs Pankhurst’s address was, as would be expected, strident and highlight the disparity in the treatment of men and women. She drew comparisons between the punishment being meted out to women who were breaking the law, and that given to men in Ireland who were not only breaking windows but also looting.

It is perhaps interesting to note that Mrs Pankhurst stated that intended to resort to hunger-striking every time she is arrested – regardless of the division she is put in – all the time the men in Ireland were not being arrested for similar or worse offences. (The prison system at this time categorised prisoners into Divisions that had more or less privileges / harshness. The suffragettes lobbied to be clarified as political prisoners who were placed in Division One. In this division they would have been entitled to more visits and to be able to write books and articles.)

In making her argument for women having the vote Mrs Pankhurst said that if women had enough intelligence to pay tax they had intelligence enough to chose the men who were going to spend their hard earned money in the form of taxation. When asked about women in Parliament Mrs Pankhurst answered that that was not something she was concerned about as that would be decided when men and women had the vote.

It was clear that the Rochester meeting was attended by suffragists as one asked Mrs Pankhurst whether she felt that the ‘eradication of the birthrate’ may be more effective in gaining the vote than smashing windows. Mrs Pankhurst replied that she did not see this as being politically effective and could not advocate such a course. (Presumably the woman asking the question could have had in mind the actions of the women of Lysistrata who withdrew from ‘conjugal relations’ until the men ended their ‘warring’ .)

The appearance of the ‘New Woman’?

Editorially the Chatham Observer in November 1912 noted that there was increased reporting of the achievements of women. There was acknowledgment of women revolutionaries, women in the professions and trades, and that women had been employed as a war correspondent and as Marconi (radio) operators. The correspondent thought a women’s first thoughts should be towards humanity and more especially child-life. Not wanting to demean this role the corresponded felt that having women on municipal bodies would help ensure issues of public moralities would be addressed – something that men appeared to show no interest in. -The writer thought that Chatham was particularly in need of this ‘attention’. At a similar time the Dean of Rochester, Dr. Randall, speaking at the Girl’s grammar, seemed to ‘push-back’ the role of women to the home when he said that women were the makers of the character of England inasmuch as they were the makers of homes in England.

Based on snippets within the news reports, it appears that the Labour Party to which many working women looked to support their calls for the vote, had some difficulties in getting behind their cause. This led to many Labour speakers/MPs being heckled. A Mr. Philip Snowdon, when questioned by suffragists in Rochester, told the women that the Labour Party did not have the power to give them the vote. He was robustly told that Labour would have the power by going into opposition and adopting anti-government policies. When Snowden was asked if he would vote at the third reading of the Franchise Bill if women were not included in it on equal terms with men, he declined to answer.

Although suffragettes were not particularly militant in Medway a suffragette was blamed for breaking the window of the premises of Mr. E. Bates (94 & 95 High Street, Rochester) in 1913. The following morning Mr. Bates placed a notice in the shop’s window:

“We regret any inconvenience caused by the temporary closure of one of our large windows. Suffragists (militant) are reminded Sunday is not an opening day with us – Bates for Value.”

This incident happened to be the subject of the first telegram sent from Rochester’s new post office. Personally I’m not convinced – based on the newspaper reports – that the smashed window could be attributed to a suffragette as the accusation was based on the supposition that it could not have been done by anyone else. As no stone was found it was presuming a hammer had been used – no drunks were known to have been in the area, and when neighbours looked out on hearing the smash, they saw no one – the window must therefore have been broken by a suffragette!

At the 1913 AGM of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU), held in Rochester, it was reported that although members had been lost because of the militants, the membership in the previous 12 months had increased from 44 to 160; this made the Rochester branch of the WPSU the third largest in Kent. (This suggests that not all members of Mrs Pankhurst’s moment supported the taking of militant action). The increase in membership of the WPSU also suggests there was growing support for the campaign to address the rights of women. The meeting heard that girls of 16 years were allowed by law to give their consent for immoral purposes but not until they were 21 had they the right to settle their own affairs concerning property etc. The meeting was also concerned that many good unmarried women were excluded from work because of their sex. It was highlighted that more women doctors were needed, and women clergy were need to work in women’s prisons. The meeting also wanted the issue of unequal pay to be addressed – illustrating their point with the fact that women teachers were paid 75% of what a man received.

Despite the strong feeling of many that women’s rights needs to be addressed and that this was unlikely until they had the vote, there were many, including women, who did not agree that women should have the vote. A Miss Ward, who addressed the WPSU’s AGM at Rochester, said that she had been a member of the Anti-Suffragist League but had become disillusioned by the movement when she heard it agued that women did not have the same brain power as men – even though all the male speakers stated that the female speaker’s points hit home. Mrs E. S. Packman (later a major campaigner for a maternity centre for Rochester mothers) announced at the meeting that that she was going to leave the Liberal Party because of the attitude of Mr. Dysdale Woodcock (prospective MP) who had stated that he would never support any measure extending the franchise to women so long as their militancy continued.

Anti-suffrage groups existed across the country. Many – particularly it would seem in Kent – maintained a low profile. It’s perhaps worth considering that the suffragists were not beyond direct action themselves – but were perhaps more ‘passive-aggressive’. Women were the major shoppers – as became evident in reports pertaining to WW1 – and as there were many suppliers of similar goods within the Towns, a boycott of a store would not seriously disadvantage the shopper but could seriously harm a business. It has therefore been suggested that many business men who were ‘antis’ did not speak out for fear of losing business.

Based on contemporary reports it is easy to assume that there were only two campaigns for the enfranchisement of women – one led by Emmeline Pankhurst and the other by Millicent Fawcett. However there were a number of organisations lobbying for the political enfranchisement of women. In Medway there were reports of the Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham branch of Women’s Labour League, which was affiliated to the Labour Party, that lobbied for the enfranchisement of women workers. The group though was particularly frustrated by the failure of the Labour Party to support their cause. The Labour Party appears to have been championing full adult suffrage rather than female suffrage, and had trouble in supporting the cause of women because of the behaviour of the suffragettes who disrupted the speeches of Labour candidates.

The Great Pilgrimage reaches Rochester

In July 1913 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the largest and oldest non-militant and non-party society, undertook Pilgrimages throughout England, all to converge on London. The aim was to explain the work and aims of the law-abiding suffragist. There were two routes through Kent that converged on Tonbridge. The southern Kent pilgrims started off from Sandwich on 3 July and made their way to Tonbridge via Folkestone and Ashford. The north Kent Pilgrims left Margate on July 1 and progressed through the Thanet towns before heading to Canterbury for a service in the Cathedral. The north Kent Pilgrims then progressed along the north Kent coast to visit the Medway Towns (Gillingham on the 15th, Chatham,16th and Rochester 17th) before heading to Tonbridge via Maidstone. On their pilgrimage the suffragists passed though a number of towns in which they held meetings. From Tonbridge the combined pilgrimages made their way to London for a meeting in Hyde Park.

Suffrage Route

The North Kent pilgrims reached Rochester on 17th July where they attended a service in the Cathedral in the afternoon. The numbers arriving at Rochester though were far less than the expected 200.

Between 30 and 40 local suffragists eventually gathered at the foot of Star Hill in the early afternoon on the 17th July. They then marched from Star Hill to College Gate, behind the banner of the National Union, to attend evensong at the Cathedral. All the pilgrims displayed their colours of of red, white and green prominently. The picture below shows the group passing from under College Gate as they made their way to the Cathedral.

Suffragist
Passing from under College / Chertsey’s Gate

Amongst the group was Mrs Packman and Miss Moore (the erstwhile champions of Rochester Women’s Liberal Association) and Miss Conway-Gordon, (local hon. secretary). Although the Dean had given permission for the pilgrims to attend the service he refused permission for them to bring in their banners into the cathedral – however it was reported that the big notice board that had been carried by Miss Conway-Gordon, which stated the group was the Rochester & District branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was seen just inside the West Door. During the service the Rev. H. Baird Turner stated there was ‘no rational reason against the ladies claim’ for the vote; coincidently the anthem sung was “ All Thy creatures praise thee” reminding everyone that everyone was equal.

During the Great War

With the declaration of WW1 the suffragists and suffragettes ended their campaigning and got behind the war effort. The organisational skills of the campaigners were put to good use in providing services to support women coming into the area for work, the moral protection of women, supporting the wives & girlfriends of the enlisted men, and in fundraising.

Within weeks of war being declared a committee of ladies/erstwhile suffragists of which Mrs. Pollard was the president and Miss Conway Gordon the vice president, opened a club and recreation room for women at 114 High Street, Strood. The laudable objective of the club was to provide some pleasure and cheer for the wives of soldiers and sailors so that their work might be better done while the men were away.

Although the suffragists ceased active campaigning during war for the vote, the women of Rochester never gave up on the cause of promoting the welfare of women, and continually highlighted the important roles fulfilled by women during the war and perhaps more importantly, the contribution they could make in reconstructing the country after the war.

Regular meetings were held throughout the war that attracted eminent speakers on matters pertaining to the role and wellbeing of women – the subject matter of these presentations in Rochester appears to have been focused less on politics and more on the stating and building on the traditional roles of women.

In June 1915 “Mrs Henry Fawcett” (Millicent Fawcett) addressed an enthusiastic meeting, at the Victoria Hall Rochester, of the Rochester Branch of the NUWSS. In the welcoming address Lady Darnley said that “the meeting might almost be called a unique one in Rochester insomuch as there were already women laden with work yet they had come to hear how they might shoulder still greater burdens.” Depending on which news report is read Mrs Fawcett spoke on “What Women can do during the war” or “Thank God, I am a Woman”.

In November 1916 a women’s group invited Laura Ormiston Dibbin Chant a social reformer and writer to Rochester to address them on “Women’s responsibility for child welfare” at a meeting held in the Guildhall.

The focus of women’s meetings in Rochester did move onto politics after the Royal Assent was given in February 1918 to the Representation of the People Act that gave the vote to some women. In July 1918 the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Citizens’ Association for Rochester, Strood and District was held at the Guildhall, Rochester. The meeting was addressed by its President, Mrs. Storrs, wife of the Dean of Rochester. Mrs. Storrs made two suggestions to the attendees. 1 – women should not be afraid to ask questions and to give opinions, and 2, they should be non-party and non-sectarian in their deliberations, and they should meet as sisters bound by the love of God and the Country, to form their own opinions on the matters of the day.

The Women’s Citizens’ Association at the meeting they held just before the Armistice, looked forward to the ending of four years of awful anxiety and sorrow, and a bright and full future. “If the men could do such mighty deeds abroad, then with their new rights and their hearts full of love and pride the women of England could surely do great things for their beloved country.” They foresaw a future where the woman employee could become the woman employer, the artisan woman would meet the commercial woman, the woman who worked with her brains would meet the woman who worked with her hands. The resultant unity, the women believed, would show the State that they recognised their duties and were willing to use them for the good of the Country.

The Association met again on the evening of the Armistice where it was address by Miss Isabel Cleghorn, who had been born in Rochester and was first woman president of the National Union of Teachers. Miss Cleghorn stressed the importance of education in the reconstruction of the country, and although there would be difficulties to come she hoped that women would not act in a way to antagonise the men. I suspect this was more aimed at women who she thought might have been inclined to resume the militancy of the pre-war suffragettes as there appears to be a suggestion in some national news reports that political parties, previous to the war, resisted the women’s campaign because they / the Government could not be seen to capitulate to violent protests.

So how is it possible that Rochester’s women focused more on campaigning for improved services for women, mothers and children and did not become particularly politicised? Perhaps it could be due the the roots of the women’s movement in Medway?

Background to the women’s movements in Medway?

The following is a matter of supposition based on news reports. I therefore offer this section as a ‘starter for 10’. More skilled social scientists may be able to ‘dig deeper’ and find primary sources. However I suspect it could be difficult to find an authentic woman’s voice from the middle of the 19th century as there appears to be few news reports based directly on the views and actions of local women. Women undoubtedly had a voice – but it doesn’t seem to have been widely reported, and may well have to be found private correspondence.

It is possible that Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett visited Rochester and the Medway Towns so regularly because of the ease of getting here from London. However it’s unlikely that they would have visited just because of the ease of the journey – they probably came to Medway because they were sure of a receptive and campaigning audience.

Women would have clearly been behind the challenge to the Contagious Diseases acts 1864, 1866 and 1869, that enabled the authorities to incarcerate, in a Lock Hospital, women in garrison or naval towns, that included Chatham, who were believed to have a venereal disease. A woman who refused to submit herself to the humiliating medical examination – by men – could be assumed to be infected and locked up – but based on a report in The Times this may not have happened to any ‘respectable women’. For about six years the locked wards in Medway were in St. Barts hospital before a ‘specialist’ unit was built in the Chatham/Maidstone Road near to the railway station.

The campaigning for the abolition of the various Contagious Diseases acts brought prominence to the cause of women’s wellbeing and rights. These acts which were widely resented, may well have led to the start of an active feminist movement.

According to a dissertation by Liza Axford held in the Medway Archive’s Centre, Strood, a women’s suffrage society was founded in Medway in 1875. Whether the group formed as a consequence of the Contagious Diseases legislation is unknown. In 1882 Sir John Otway, MP for Rochester, presented a petition to the House of Commons for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act – it seems to me improbable that this would have happened without the ‘invisible’ involvement of local women as the campaign was driven by the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts that had been set up by women. Parliament suspended the Acts in 1883 and repealed them in 1886.

Women involved in this campaigning would have needed to have been organised and to have established a network of contacts – essential components for a campaign that would lobby for the political enfranchisement of women.

During WW1 women undertook a wide range of caring duties and responsibilities and actively lobbied consistently throughout the war for a maternity centre in Rochester. In 1915 the Women’s Cooperative Guild and Women’s Liberal Association wrote to the Council asking that a maternity centre be provided without delay. In 1916 the lobbyists succeed in getting the Local Government Board to press Rochester Town Council to establish a ‘maternity and child welfare centre’. In June 1917, Mrs S. Packman, a leader of the Rochester Suffragist movement wrote how the Mothers of Rochester envied those of Chatham who were soon to have a maternity centre. Even at the end of the war women’s groups in Rochester lobbied for a crèche at Rochester for munition workers. It may have been a bit late in the day to seek such a facility for munition works but it may have been a rouse to be able to seek a grant to get a maternity centre in Rochester.

It was not though just about maternity centres that the women of Rochester concerned themselves. They organised or supported many events that focused on mothers as a means to reduce infant mortality. In addition to this being an ‘interest’ of the female leaders in Rochester, it was also patriotic as nationally there was a requirement for the country to be re-populated in order to rebuild itself and to continue to assert control over its Empire.

Sources

Numerous news reports found on the British Newspaper Archive, and on microfilm held by Medway Archives.

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